Worst of all, England have lost the knack of the romantic defeat
In years to come, 2016 will be remembered as football's year of the swashbuckling underdog. Whatever next season may bring, nothing can diminish the romance of Leicester's maiden Premier League title victory. Iceland's lushly-bearded part-time pros have won the hearts of countless fans with their ultimately doomed French saga, and Wales – largely the same Wales side that went down 6-1 to the mighty Serbia in 2012 – may yet produce the biggest upset of all tonight as they bid to progress to the Euro 2016 final.
It could have been the same for England. The Three Lions entered the tournament with diminished expectations but some fresh faces and an air of possibility. There was the notion that, with an easy route to the knockout stages, Woy's boys 'could surprise a few'. England no longer travel under a weight of expectation and inflated self-importance, and yet there was still a sense of hubris in the manner of our defeat by Iceland.
The North Atlantic nation were making their first appearance in a major international competition. They have a population of just 330,000 people – only slightly greater than that of Wakefield. They've only recently been able to train year-round, following the construction of indoor pitches to combat their wild climate. There were reports of England's backroom staff celebrating when results conspired to present us with the Icelanders – rather than Portugal – in the last 16. No matter which way you look at it, Iceland were the heroes of this tie. There was no romance in defeat from an English perspective – only shame and a species of presumptive arrogance justly slain by the men in blue.
For me, this is the worst thing about the steady decline of the England men's national side: the fact that we've lost the knack of the romantic defeat. England used to die in flames at major international tournaments – like the boys from Cool Runnings, we were masters of the noble failure. Think of the '86 World Cup. England came up against a Maradona-inspired Argentina, and lost through a dramatic combination of footballing genius and bare-faced cheating. We went home, but we could feel indignant in defeat and proud of our moral – if not sporting – superiority.
Euro '96 was a similar story. That England team played well, partied hard and excited on the pitch, only to be undone by the disciplined Germans in the agony of a penalty shootout. We took an early lead, were the better side for much of the game and could well have stolen a winner at the death had Gascoigne's go-go gadget leg extended just an inch further at the back post. There was heartbreak and heroism in the manner of our defeat.
10 years later, a young Wayne Rooney thrilled at the 2006 World Cup, only to be sent off in contentious circumstances against Portugal. That Cristiano Ronaldo wink will live in infamy, and the then-Manchester United player's eventual winning spot kick rubbed salt in English wounds. Still, we could exit stage left with our heads held high.
It's one thing to be knocked out by one of the tournament favourites – particularly should the opposition stretch the definitions of fair sportsmanship in the process– but quite another to be outplayed in every department by a team ranked as 150/1 outsiders before a ball had been kicked in France. The manner of our performances against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup, Italy again at Euro 2012 and Germany in 2010 could hardly be described as heroic, either.
We can stomach being international nearly-men, and we can live with the fact that England are considered a second-tier team by the rest of the footballing world – just as long as we go down with our chins up and our fists raised. But being cast as bad guys, killjoys and laughing stocks is a bitter pill to swallow.
– Louis Rossi